Cape Town – Biodiversity research is ‘foundational’ to the South Africa Earth Observation Network’s (SAEON) primary focus, according to SAEON Fynbos Node scientist Dr Jasper Slingsby.

Slingsby together with Dr Lara Atkinson presented SAEON’s dependence on foundational biodiversity information at the at the 2018 FBIP Forum hosted jointly with SANBI Biodiversity Information Management Forum (BIMF) at the Cape St Francis Resort in the Eastern Cape in a talk titled “Leveraging biodiversity information for observing global change”.

According to Slingsby SAEON was created to aid sustainable development in South Africa by addressing the lack of reliable long-term data at scales that are relevant to informing policy, and to aid integration between various sources of information on the environmental, social and economic elements of sustainability.

“While biodiversity monitoring is not our core function, biodiversity information are foundational to understanding the state and trajectory, function, and societal benefits that can be derived from ecosystems,” he told the FBIP after the Forum.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) together with the National Research Foundation (NRF) manage the Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP) – a large collaborative project that aims to collate and increase biodiversity information in service of society.

“As such, SAEON and SANBI are natural collaborators and many of SAEON’s projects that include long term monitoring of biodiversity depend on and/or feed into SANBI programmes to inform environmental policy and management” he said.

In short, said Slingsby, “biodiversity research is not SAEON’s primary focus, but it is foundational to the work we do – predominantly focused on ecosystem function, environmental change and the implications for societal benefits”.

SAEON marine monitoring

Dr Lara Atkinson highlighted the fact that long-term environmental monitoring was important  to enable an improved understanding of how changing conditions affected marine environments.

“Without rigorous data from the past, we are unable to detect, quantify or adapt to changes in the environment now, or into the future,” she said.

Atkinson introduced the Pelagic Ecosystem LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) programme: A collaboration between SAEON, SAIAB (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity) and NMMU (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) which aims to monitor the pelagic ecosystem within Algoa Bay.

The project started in 2010 and collects monthly samples of water column nutrients, phytoplankton and zooplankton with appropriate oceanographic instruments at each station.

According to Atkinson offshore benthic ecosystems of South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone have, in the past, been poorly studied and local taxonomic knowledge of offshore invertebrates has been considered sparse.

“Marine invertebrates are one of the most poorly studied group of taxa across all known environments,” she said.